It’s both sad and instructive to watch the people of Greece being brought to heel by their creditors.
Regardless of your political stripes, you should admire any government that—like Syriza—campaigned on a clear message to better the lot of the average citizen, received a mandate to do so, then—when pressed—returned to the electorate and received an even stronger mandate to continue that work.
And then you should be just as saddened by how powerless this same government turned out to be against the forces arraigned against them. It’s been called a coup d’etat and, in this case, it was achieved more by the bank ledger than the barricade.
Faced by a cataclysmic institutional backlash from their quasi-elected creditors in Berlin and Brussels, Greece is being forced back into a wholly futile process of austerity. As a result, the citizens of Greece will continue to pay for the mistakes made years ago by the same governments that led them into the Eurozone.
So much for democracy: the will of the people is slowly being ground down until it can fit neatly beneath the feet of the country’s creditors.
This scenario is, of course, not unique to Greece: it is part of a broader economic doctrine that has gripped the West with increasing strength for the past 40 years. When it comes to representing the interests of the people—the very essence of democracy—the power of elected representatives is being steadily curtailed in favour of the rights of big business and even bigger finance. And our politicians are happily complicit in their own neutering.
This where the instructive part becomes important. There are lessons that we in British Columbia must draw from the Greek sunset and we must start applying them today.
This week, there will be a special session of the provincial legislature to approve enabling legislation for a sweeping LNG investment by a multinational company called Petronas. One might think this special session is something of a step forward for a government that doesn’t seem especially enamoured of the day-to-day business of democracy, until you dig a bit deeper into the details of the bill they intend to enact.
The Petronas agreement is quite a piece of work. In return for an impressive sounding investment of $36 billion, the government is ready to accept a series of very binding constraints on top of other recent accommodations made to environmental regulations, tax regimes, and royalty payments—you know, the basic tools of government.
Now, the B.C. Liberal government is prepared to go a big step further. This week’s enabling legislation contains incredible provisions that allow dollar-for-dollar compensation to Petronas should this government or any government for the next 25 years impose regulatory changes that adversely impact their investment.
A sweetheart deal for Petronas—but one that is both bad economic policy for British Columbia and profoundly undemocratic.
What should really draw our concern is the near-certainty that this “deal” will provide a template for every other LNG investment the B.C. Liberals attempt to close before the 2017 election. The subsequent feeding frenzy will make Matt Taibbi’s vampire squids look like cuddly housepets.
Given that the Petronas deal also includes a provision that lets them piggy-back on more favourable conditions included in any other LNG agreement, this is a real multi-billion dollar race to the bottom. And we all get to go along for the ride, much like the people of Greece.
Imagine, for example, that the people of British Columbia decide to elect a government determined to enact tougher environmental legislation. That government will be legally required to pay private companies for the privilege of acting in the public interest. And, as is the case in Greece, it is the average citizen who ultimately will wind up compensating Petronas through cuts to social programs, increased user fees, or tax hikes.
This future conundrum is being designed by a government today that is desperate to show economic growth, yet seemingly has few ideas as to how they might accomplish this (aside from whatever they might have cribbed from a tattered Fraser Institute report).
Now this seems like the kind of issue that a social democratic Opposition would pounce upon—but the B.C. NDP’s response has been alarmingly ambivalent so far.
Last fall, when Petronas was publicly dithering over their investment decision, the B.C. NDP voted in favour of the government’s general approach: this was to reassure international investors that B.C. was open for business. That was a truly lost opportunity, as a unified and popular opposition led by, well, the Official Opposition might have changed the dynamic by activating public opinion. But here we are.
Today, the B.C. NDP seems to be oblivious to the profound problems at the heart of the Petronas agreement. Instead, as best as I can tell, they seem most concerned that not enough jobs will be created over the life of the project. For a party petrified of being labelled as anti-business, I guess this is a somewhat fair point. But it leads me to ask how many (unionized) jobs will it take for them to go along with this sell-out of future generations of British Columbians. 2,000? 3,000? 500 in the right riding?
The B.C. NDP needs an emergency injection of their own founding principles. They must remember that sometimes it isn’t a matter of negotiating a slightly less feculent version of the same shitty deal—it’s a matter of tearing it up.
But we aren’t going to see that happen. We’re going to see this legislation get passed, with the significance of these provisions explained to the citizens of this province with all the care and attention to detail of a broker hawking a sub-prime mortgage.
Sadly, the people of British Columbia won’t feel the teeth of this agreement for a few years, not until so many other fangs are in place that it will really bite. Enacted by a government elected by their parents, it will lock them into a democratic straight jacket alongside an environmentally destructive industry with dubious economic returns.
By itself, the Petronas agreement won’t lead to a Greek-level corporate coup in this province, but it demonstrates a pattern of governance that sees multinational corporations lure different countries into a jurisdictional competition for investment, where good behaviour (loosening regularions, lowering standards, cutting taxes) is rewarded, while bad behaviour is sanctioned.
And it’s a pattern of governance with which the B.C. Liberals seem increasingly comfortable.